Endless Love by Scott Spencer, Part II

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As mentioned in my earlier post, the opening of Endless Love by Scott Spencer enraptured me and I was eager to finish reading it.  I thought I’d also compare the novel to the 1981 Brooke Shields film.  A re-make opens in a couple weeks.

The first thing that struck me was Spencer’s discipline as an author.  This is a 400-page arrow of a novel that never strays from the mark of David’s passion.  It’s a novel about first love and how its flames can (literally) engulf and destroy everything around it, alter lives forever, and drive one to madness.  Spencer accomplishes an amazing feat by getting the reader to share David’s yearning for Jade.  He does this with skills comparable to those of a talented seductress.  He teases, gives us glimpses, leaves us writhing for more.  In fact, David’s Jade appears in only a few flashback scenes early in the novel.  We glimpse her only briefly, we see David yearning for her and plotting to see her, and we feel his desperation, but it will be nearly 300 pages before we actually get to consummate our love affair by meeting Jade in person.  A lesser writer would be inclined to spend those hundreds of pages trying build up a love affair by showing endearments, hand-holding beneath the stars, flowers, dances, and kisses… which would make for a boring novel.  Spencer cuts straight to the core of “first love” in part by realizing that the “love” itself is cliché, but the mad, all-consuming passion surrounding it is what is compelling.

So after the opening pages, David is in a mental hospital by court order for arson.  What’s driven him crazy is that he was rejected not only by Jade, but by her entire family.  They had taken him in.  He lived under their roof.  They shared everything together; they were an eccentric, but very close family.  Then suddenly they pushed him away, with no explanations.  He was injured not only by the loss of his first love, but by the rejection from the rest of the family.  After the fire, their family split up and spread across the country.  This becomes an ongoing theme of the novel, of how David’s all-consuming first love can destroy everything in its path, including David’s own life and well-being.

The themes and imagery motifs are well-constructed and carefully woven into the narrative.  The most pervasive and powerful motifs revolved around hearts, blood, and flames, and there are many subtle word choices, descriptions, and images that keep this playing at the back of the reader’s minds (like Jade, in frustration, poking at her car’s cigarette lighter, or white snow behind a car turning the color of ash from the exhaust).  Endless Love is the definitive novel of first love, and a true tour-de-force.

About the film, I will say that I don’t envy anybody trying to adapt this novel for the screen.  The first challenge is the structure; while it works on paper to have David yearning for Jade for the first 75%, before the reader really gets to see them together, you couldn’t expect a filmmaker to withhold Brooke Shields until the last 20 minutes of the film.  David’s yearning in the novel is created by the interiority of his first person narrative; rather than trying to replace this with voice-overs and flashbacks, the filmmakers tried to impose a traditional arc on the story.  Shortcuts had to be made, and the most tragic of these cuts was that David and Jade never get a period of reunion; they are instead thrust straight past any period of redemption or hopefulness to the next plot point.  And ultimately the filmmakers were powerless to the rising star-power of Brooke Shields, and they tried to twist the story so that the final moral of the story is hers to learn.  Suddenly it’s a story of how Brooke Shields’ character needs to mature and become a woman—which has nothing to do with the thrust of the novel (although Jade does mature in the novel, it happens “behind the scenes”). In short, all the powerful metaphors for first love in the novel become a disjointed string of pointless mishaps on the screen.

My Top Ten Favorite Literary Novels

Hemingway Cover

 

  1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  Powerful and tight, and Hemingway at his best.  I’m glad that most people just think of him as a writer with simple sentence constructions, blunt and curt prose, and a small vocabulary.  One of my private conceits is that I imagine myself the only person who really sees the artistry of what he’s doing.  I’m glad nobody else is paying attention.  I love when I work for hours on a small paragraph and achieve something even remotely close to what he might have written.  “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  This man was not so much a writer as a composer.  The prose attains a lyrical beauty.  Beginning writers need to learn how to avoid word repetition and starting sentences with the same words… Then you read Steinbeck and you realize that these are instruments too sharp for your clumsy little hands, but if wielded properly can slay the soul.  “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize.  There is a failure here that topples all our successes… And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange… the food must rot, be forced to rot… and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
  3. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He writes with an epic scale and when reading Marquez I feel him creating the whole world around me.  I admire the way he evokes passion and yearning.  “She was no more than twenty-five, she was slender and golden, she had Portuguese eyelids that made her seem even more aloof, and any man would have been satisfied with only the crumbs of the tenderness that she lavished on her son.”
  4. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.  Oskar Matzerath might be my favorite protagonist of all time.  He’s memorable because he’s a sort of tortured superhero (or super-villain), if you take him literally (although he’s composing his memoirs from an insane asylum)… but here’s a boy who became a dwarf because he chose to stop growing, and who becomes the leader of a gang based on his drumming and his abilities to shatter windows with his shrieks.  He inherited the desire to hide under his grandmother’s dress because his mother had been conceived by a man who’d taken refuge from soldiers there (under her dress in a potato field).  “For several minutes Oskar stood there in a very tight skin, a prey to so many thoughts of the most divergent origins that his heart had difficulty in imposing any sort of arrangements upon them.” 
  5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.  The charge in this novel is the sense of wonder with which the world is viewed, and a sense that things are so perfect and beautiful that you fear that the end or some darkness is lurking nearby.  “Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”
  6. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  I love the dreamlike, lyrical prose and the mysterious unfolding of the story, so elegantly crafted.  “So the books for the Englishman, as he listened intently or not, had gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if locusts had consumed a section of tapestry, as if plaster loosened by the bombing had fallen away from a mural at night.”
  7. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter.  Sometimes an author’s prose style evokes a visual image for me; I see the words like brush-strokes.  I visualize Salter’s work as pointillism—many small, distinct images that you have to view from afar to appreciate the full picture.  “I only want everyone who reads this to be as resigned as I am.  There’s enough passion in the world already.  Everything trembles with it.”
  8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  This is a scandalous book and one that many still condemn.  The most compelling thing about it is the electricity created by the sheer magnitude of Humbert Humbert’s internal conflicts and passions.  There’s a continuous charge created by his inner torments; he’s helpless to his lust, he’s mad with guilt yet still thrills in his sins.  It’s almost as though in writing his memoir he’s both titillating and torturing himself; condemning himself and trying to win sympathy.  “The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of genius or the most talented impotent might imagine.”
  9. The Lover by Marguerite Duras.  I appreciate her ability to convey an atmosphere and enigmatic emotions through language.  “The story of my life doesn’t exist.  Does not exist.  There’s not any center to it.  No path, no line.  There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.”
  10. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  More than anything, what gets me about this one is just how in tune you feel with Holden Caulfield—every quirk of his personality comes out through his thoughts and his voice.  “That’s the thing about girls.  Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.  Girls.  Jesus Christ.  They can drive you crazy.  They really can.”

Now I get to cheat and mention a few I wish I would’ve fit into my top ten:  James Baldwin, Tim O’Brien, James Jones, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, Haruki Murakami.  Except, now that I’m cheating I want to go on and on…

Endless Love by Scott Spencer (Part I)

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I was first assigned to read the opening pages of Endless Love by Scott Spencer in a writing workshop led by Roy Hoffman.  This was not a book I would have picked up on my own, if only because it conjured up images of a gauzy Brooke Shields romance film from the early 1980s and lyrics from Lionel Richie and Diana Ross.  From the novel’s title, and those sounds and images, I was expecting something sappy.  Instead, what I encountered was perhaps one of the greatest, most tortured and explosive openings to a novel that I’d ever read.

After reading the opening in workshop, I purchased a copy of the novel, but it sat on my shelf for years (as many books do), waiting until I had the time and the right frame of mind to read it.  I knew the time for Endless Love had come when I saw the theatrical trailer for the film’s re-make (opening on Valentine’s Day, 2014).  This was a gripping trailer, with Lionel Richie’s song replaced by an ominous a capella rendition of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” sung by Florence + The Machine (yes, another 1980’s song, but it’s creepy and it works).  Of course, it’s easy to make good trailers from bad movies, so I’ll reserve my opinion of the film, but I might try watching both films after reading the novel.

Such a thrill, to re-read those opening pages and to know that this time I get to read the entire story.  Scott Spencer creates a magnificent, electric charge with the first chapter.  In the opening lines, the first-person narrator tells us that his life was divided forever by the story he begins to relate; he tells us that he is about to set fire to a house holding his girlfriend and the four people that he cares most about in the world.  Wow.  Got your attention?

Suspense builds as we get thumbnail sketches of each of the people in the house as the soon-to-be-arsonist watches them through the window.  Additionally we learn that he had for months lived with the family, openly sharing the bed of their fifteen year-old daughter.  We learn that, for some reason, he’d been banished from the house for a term of thirty days, and this is the instigation for his lighting the match.  Not because he intends to burn down their house or endanger them, but only because he’s desperate for their attention and knocking on the door won’t do him any good.  Even before the fire begins, we learn that the outcome will be that he’s brought to trial as an arsonist and is sent to a psychiatric hospital.

What a terrific wind-up for a novel.  The imminent danger of the fire to the loved ones inside; the potential for a life full of guilt; the desperation of already having been separated from a family and a girlfriend; the mad passion of young lust.  And, too, there are the mysteries we look forward to understanding—how is their family so eccentric, not only because they’d allowed him to live there with their fifteen year-old daughter, but because when he bursts into the house to save them from the fire, he finds that they are all tripping on LSD!  As readers, we want to see how he’ll deal with the aftermath, but we also want to understand what came before: why was he banished from the house?  Why was he so tortured that he couldn’t wait out his sentence to return to them?  And, on top of this, the seed for a potentially unreliable narrator is sewn by the third page when the narrator says that even he cannot understand his true motives and that the statement he gives to authorities begins to feel less than authentic even to himself.  This is a narrator whose sanity is questionable, and yet if he is only temporarily insane, we wonder whether this family or this girlfriend might have driven him there.

I love opening chapters that operate on so many levels!

I’ll be back soon to give my thoughts on the rest of the novel.  In the meantime, here are some YouTube clips related to the movies (neither of which I’ve seen yet, but intend to watch both after reading…I always prefer the novel, but I must admit I’m curious to watch both of these, even though the 1981 version was considered a failure despite its star-power.  The 1981 version was Tom Cruise’s debut, Ian Zeiring’s debut, and had a young James Spader as well).  I’m also including a clip of the author, Scott Spencer speaking at a conference (not related to Endless Love, although it’s mentioned in the Q&A and he calls the movie “an icon to bad movie-making”, and how excited he was to get a $10,000 advance for the novel).

Endless Love 1981 (Song Film Excerpt)

Endless Love 2014 (Trailer)

Brooke Shields 1981 Interview

Scott Spencer, National Book Festival 2010